Special year for Bucks’ Middleton continues with USA Basketball

LAS VEGAS — What a year it’s been for Milwaukee Bucks star Khris Middleton.

It dates back to last August when he was invited to participate in USA Basketball training camp alongside some of the best players in the game.

Then Middleton went on to post a career-high in both assists (4.3) and rebounds (6.0) while scoring 18.3 points (he also made a career-best 179 3-pointers) in 31.1 minutes per game during the 2018-19 season. Middleton’s play earned him a trip to Charlotte for his first career All-Star selection, just hours away from his hometown of Charleston, S.C.

To top off the forward’s successful season, Middleton received a handsome five-year, $178 million contract from Milwaukee during the first few days of free agency.

The Bucks and USA Basketball aren’t the only entities aware of Middleton’s talents. NBA coaches and players across the league, including superstar Kevin Durant, have noticed Middleton’s impact as well, giving him high praise for his well-rounded game.

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“It’s cool when you got your peers and players at that type of level that respect your game; that’s what it’s all about,” said Middleton after a practice at this year’s USA Basketball training camp. “You don’t care if people like or dislike you, it’s all about the respect when they go against you. And when they see you on the court, they know that you’re going to give it your all and they’re going to respect you out there.

“It’s just about being a basketball player out there. Not just being a shooter, not just being a playmaker, and not just being a scorer. Just combine all those things and make it tough on the opponent, but also making everything easier for all my teammates.”

While Middleton is back with USA Basketball preparing for the 2020 Olympic qualifying tournament, he is not the sole Bucks player taking part this year. He is joined by teammates Brook Lopez on the USA national team roster and Pat Connaughton on the USA Select squad.

“It’s all about representing your country,” Middleton said. “Not a lot of people get to put on these three letters and play a sport. To be here is a huge accomplishment and honor. It’s a little bit more comforting in some ways (having some of his Bucks teammates there); it’s great to have guys that you know, guys that you’ve played with. Hopefully we all make the team together. We know how to gel together and the chemistry clicks a little quicker with those guys, but it’s all about the other guys, too.”

The Bucks’ trio has obvious on-court chemistry, but their off-court bond is apparent as well. Immediately after every USA Basketball practice ends, Middleton, Lopez and Connaughton walked from all ends of the Mendenhall Center to find each other. This offseason, Middleton even took his leadership role to new heights by working out with and mentoring Connaughton.

“I’ve done a lot of workouts with Khris this summer and I’ve learned a lot from him and worked with him quite a bit,” said Connaughton while a USA trainer started wrapping and taping ice to his legs. “I’m getting my knees taped right now (and) I only do that because he (Middleton) told me it’s all about prevention, and it is the best medicine.”

Middleton has two personas when it comes to basketball.

First, it’s obvious he genuinely has fun on the court. For instance, during a 3-point contest near the end of training camp, with Middleton preparing for a shot which could have won the competition, De’Aaron Fox crouched down two feet away and screamed at him, “Don’t miss it Khris! Don’t miss it Khris! Don’t miss it Khris! Don’t miss it Khris!”

Middleton missed the 3-pointer but was able to shake his head laughing while Fox continued to heckle Middleton and followed him off the court declaring, “I can’t believe you missed it.”

“That’s just all fun and games; that’s what it’s all about,” said a grinning Middleton. “We go against each other a lot, but at the same time we have got to have fun with it.”

The other side of Middleton is a fierce competitor that plays with a locked-in, stone-cold face. During a scrimmage with his team trailing by three with 3.2 seconds left, USA National team assistant coach Steve Kerr, the head coach of the Golden State Warriors, drew up a play for Middleton to shoot the game-tying 3-pointer. Middleton got fouled on the attempt then calmly knocked down all three free throws. Middleton’s squad eventually won in a bonus 10-minute overtime session.

“I think Khris is going to play a really important role on our team,” Kerr said. “We don’t have a ton of shooting with this group. … I see him as a two, three, four across the board. He can switch, he has good size. I like seeing him be the finisher rather than the initiator because of his shooting ability.”